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Beyond Zone 9: Students and Staff Struggle with Long Commutes

By Jacob Winter BA Politics and International Relations

SOAS is situated right in the heart of London, close to one of the busiest train stations in the city. Its students come from all over the country, but almost all live in London. Close to the university are Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road and Warren Street tube stations, connecting the university to much of the city via the underground; that’s not to say their commute is easy. Outside of the area of London, actively covered by the tube, commuting can involve changes, long journeys and cancellations, especially for those who take the overground. A growing number of students and staff are commuting from outside the city entirely, and it’s a day-to-day challenge that is not often discussed. 

Commuting into London for work is something that is done by many well-paid professionals in London’s financial districts. In 2014, 790,000 of those who worked in London lived outside of the city, and the mansions in Surrey need financiers to live in them. London is surrounded by dormitory or commuter towns, like Reading and Maidenhead, where people who work in the city live. This isn’t a massive problem for a full-time employee with job security, but for a student or someone in academia, this poses an issue. Many lecturers are on short-term contracts, which don’t offer enough pay, nor job security, to relocate to London. 

One lecturer, when asked if they would like the opportunity to move closer to London for work, said, “If I had the opportunity to have a permanent position, and therefore security and consistency, definitely.” All of the academics I spoke to were on short-term contracts. According to the Guardian in 2013, a third of all academic staff are on short-term contracts as universities casualise their workforce, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency claims that only 33% of university staff are even on fixed-term contracts. The rest are working on hourly-paid contracts or on “atypical” contracts, while the UCU claims that 3545 academic staff in the country are working on zero-hour contracts in 29 institutions across the country. 

Doctor Alex Tebble, Teaching Fellow in Politics, echoed this sentiment around precarious work. Working two part time jobs, he also commented that, “ I think it is symptomatic of larger issues around precarious work, and staff and students both having to look further afield for work to support themselves … More flexible teaching arrangements, compressed hours, evening classes, and asynchronous learning might end up better reflecting the realities of working and studying side by side for both staff and students, without more substantial changes in the sector.” 

Some lecturers come to university from as far away as York, while others are significantly closer. One consistent theme when asked is the belief that, whether or not they would move to London for work, their long commutes directly harm their ability to interact with their students,

“I think the long commute eats into my day leaving me less free time, but also it leaves me exhausted and not able to contribute to students’ experience as much as I would like to. This is especially the case when there are transport issues and I end up missing meetings etc.”

That being said, not all lecturers are desperate to live in London. One professor stated, “My reasons for a long commute are much more to do with the way academia works as a career in the early years, rather than anything specifically to do with SOAS itself.”

Another stated “I do think there are a lot of reasons lecturers don’t live in London, and I generally wouldn’t want to live in London proper even if I was on a permanent contract. It’s too busy, the cost of rent is too high, and I like the living standards of my town.”

For students, the long commute means missing classes, spending whole days at university if they have classes spread out and being generally detached from student life if their friends live a train journey away. Ali, a first-year student who lives in Windsor, claimed that even when aiming to arrive 30 minutes early, her train would often stop mid-journey between Slough and Paddington. On top of that, regular national rail journeys are expensive, and the prices are constantly rising. A desire for a more reliable and affordable rail network has been echoed by both the students and staff I spoke to.

Many students claim maintenance loans, however, this is a massive problem for Muslim students, as the interest added to those loans is not permitted in Islam. Muslim students make up 23% of the SOAS student cohort, the largest singular religious group at the university. Third-year student Sanna Hamid, said that “I chose to stay living at home because London is too expensive and I didn’t want to get into more student debt, especially seeing as interest is applied to student loans which goes against my religious beliefs. So I just wanted to minimise how much interest I deal with.”

London universities will not be able to survive when all of their students and staff commute from beyond Zone 9.”

With rising living costs and a rental market putting off students from even attending a London-based university, those who commute from outside of the city will continue to increase. These commuters, and their struggles, are a clear symptom of the economic crisis this country finds itself in, and London universities will not be able to survive when all of their students and staff commute from beyond Zone 9.

[Image credit: Sarah Cotte]

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